Department of English
Banaras Hindu University
“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” This line by Simone de Beauvoir very well detaches the attributes attached with women and terms it as not inherent but forcefully imposed by the patriarchal society. The attributes attached with women as she should be beautiful, tender, fragile, compassionate, motherly is nothing but a myth and has been imposed on women in due course of time. In Indian perspective Indian mythologies have played an important role in doing so; cause dutiful wives like Sita, Draupadi, Ahilaya and a host of such characters have posed a face of female being devoted towards her husband and in-laws, acting a good mother and loving daughter who are ready to sacrifice each and every thing for the safety and goodwill of their family. Apart from their nature their beauty is always described as unparallel and flawless, whether from a royal family or hailing from an asharam, they are always well dressed and unmatched beauties. They can even go for an agni pariksha in order to prove her chastity or as in the case of Ahilaya can be even turned into a stone-piece by an infuriated husband although the fault is not hers and she even begs forgiveness for the infidelity she had committed unknowingly. Although we have some knowledge of these great heroines of the past but some are so ignored like Urmila, Hidimba and Shakuntala whose husbands just walk away from them for some noble cause leaving them dejected and forgotten. This paper thus aims at underlining the patriarchal stereotyping of women in myths and folklores in which these stories act as an ideology to subjugate women.
Key Words: women, beauty, motherhood, stereotype, myth, patriarchy, society, power
“Feminist critique ought to understand how the category of ‘women’ the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought” (Butler 1998: 275). These lines by Judith Butler from her essay “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire” brings to light the fact that the category of women is nothing but a social construct. The subjugation of women for centuries and the notions of the patriarchal society has created this myth attached to women. Power has played a dominant role in doing so and Foucault’s notion on power can be seen as analogous to Butler’s view. As in Foucault’s belief, power is ubiquitous and all encompassing and Foucault sees an individual as, “. . . a reality fabricated by this specific technology of power. . .”(Foucault 1977: 194). The laws are of those who create it and in the case of women as a subject it’s the patriarchal society which has created the rules. Through ages it has been established fact that a woman should be beautiful, chaste, soft-spoken, humble, shy, motherly and the list goes on. With the advent of feminism there is awareness in women and they are ready to question their status in the society as well as challenge the established authority. It is not that in just one day this politics has come to light but it took ages of stereotyping which resulted in the creation of category of women. In a country like India Indian myths have played an important role in typifying women. As I have already mentioned a host of such characters who were women of virtue and talent and were chaste and beautiful as the mythical stories suggested. This paper is an endeavor to look back and in the light of these traditional values and stories reflect how Indian women were typified by the governors of the society.
Before coming down to mythologies let us first start with the signifiers and signified. Language can be seen as an important aspect of this discourse as Althusser in his “Ideological State Apparatus” were language is seen as the mode through which subjectification is done. As quoting Althusser Judith Butler states:
In Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus” the subordination of the subject takes place through language, as the effect of the authoritative voice that hails the individual. In the infamous example that Althusser offers, a policeman hails a passerby on the street, and the passerby turns and recognizes himself as the one who is hailed. In the exchange by which the recognition is proffered and accepted, interpellation – the discursive production of the social subject – takes place. (Butler 1997: 5)
Here in the Indian context we can observe the same thing, the authoritative voice of patriarchy coined names, which is also a social construct, in such a way that it subjectified her. In Hindi language the signifiers used which signify the category of women are related to the aspects or traits of feminine qualities which the masculine world wanted to see in her. Example the word: Sundari, as women are expected to be beautiful or else Abala, as she is expected to be weaker of the sex, Chanchala, for she is supposed to be fickle in mood and character. The names assigned to the category of women in order to subjugate her and use the authoritative superiority of the male gender is also a language construct. Simone de Beauvoir suggests it in her work The Second Sex that One is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one” (Beauvoir 301)
As I have already mentioned the names of a host of female protagonists who are ideal ladies or Goddesses, they are worshipped but look at the loopholes. First of all, women is not as supernatural being who should be worshipped and must be an ideal figure of chaste and purified soul. She is a normal human being who can have flaws and are prone to make mistakes but in the mythological stories she is presented as devoid of human vices, such characters are created in order to put an example before and burden the conscience of women with all those attributes and good values attached to her so that they should behave accordingly to the norms of the society. Starting from the character of Seeta1, given the position of a Goddess, and we all know how this Goddess was treated. To prove her sanctity she had to undergo an Agnipariksha2 and even after that she is not accepted by the so called, Maryada Purushottam Rama3 and once again is send to exile in order to please the people of Rama’s province. She is accepted back only when Rama comes to know about his two brave sons Lav and Kusha. In the case of Seeta, we attribute all the feminine qualities to her; her beauty, chastity, devotion towards husband, motherly nature and in-front of women a perfect example is presented. A role model, to take up all burdens and suffer at the hands of the husband and still be happy and go on loving him. Only at one instance we can see the true women, a protagonist in Seeta, at the time of reconciliation, when she refuses to return back to her husband’s place and instead chooses to bury her in the womb of the Earth. It could have been better if she would have chosen to walk off. Some critics hold the view that this incident of Seeta’s exile, which is incorporated in the Uttara-Kand (Last chapter) of Ramayana is an interpolation and was added later on in the original Ramayana. Still we can argue about the Agni-Pariksha incident and obviously about deterioration in the condition of women.
We have a series of these ladies who are governed by the myth of sacrificing everything in order to please their husband or in-laws. Another aspect of this is her beauty or the beauty-myth. All these mythological characters are epitomes of beauty as it is expected that the women should be beautiful. Be it Seeta, who was abducted by Ravana cause of her unparallel beauty or Ahilya4, who was seduced by Indra5, Shakuntala6, on whose sight King Dushyanta7 fell in love or Draupadi8, who can be seen as an aspect at the centre of Pandava9 – Kaurava10 dispute. All were unmatched in their youth and beauty. And due to these representations a trend is accepted by the women to look beautiful as they believe that in order to gain attention or as a true aspect or trait of women is to be beautiful. Radha Chakravarthy describes it best in her book, Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers: Rethinking Subjectivity where she states: “. . . the traditional representations that uses the female body to articulate the ideas of order and beauty and demonstrate the ways in which the male gaze has been internalized by women, who thus participate in the process of their own subjugation” (Chakravarthy 42).
Thus, beauty was a trait assigned to woman and in order to please the male she had to look beautiful and presentable. We had a tradition of court-dancers, apsaras11 and even the brides were expected to be beautiful. Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ an imminent poet of Hindi literature brings to light these elements in his poem “Urvashi” where Apsaras themselves feel proud to be beautiful women who can please all men. Rambha, an apsara from heaven tells these lines to her friends:
Janmi hum kis liye? Moda sabke man me bharne ko.
Kisi ek ko nahi mugdha jeevan arpit karne ko.
Shrishti humari nahi sankuchit kisi ek aagan me.
Kisi ek k liye surbhi hum nhi sangoti tan me. (Dinkar 10)
These lines tell us that apsaras are born not to be confined to a home or to get married to a single man but to please all. As they are the most beautiful their beauty is worth by pleasing Gods and not confining to a single home. In the same epic we see one more aspect of the Indian tradition where a man is free to marry or indulge with as many women he wants but a woman should be pure and chaste. Citing the example of Pururva, the King on Earth, who fell in love with Urvashi, the apsara of the heaven, even after the fact that he was married. Chitralekha, another apsara from heaven justifies Pururva by saying:
Ek ghat par kis raja ka, rehta bandha pranay hai.
Naya bodh srimant prem ka, karte hi rehte hai.
Nitya nayi sundartaon par marte hi rehte hai. (Dinkar 15)
So a king is free to love and marry as many woman he pleases where as a woman should be pure and chaste or else like Ahilya she has to bear the consequences of committing infidelity even if it is not her mistake. Then we have Urmila, wife of Laxman who has to sacrifice all her happiness of a conjugal life and stay back at the palace in Ayodhya to serve her in laws when her husband goes off to exile with his brother Rama. Here woman is described as the epitome of sacrifice and devotion towards her in-laws and husband. Her desires are suppressed in the name of culture, devotion and Karma (duty). Then we have least remembered characters like Hidimba12 whom Bheem13 marries and then walks off. Leaving her back in the Jungle with a child and remembers her only when Bheem needs his son Ghatotkacha from Hidimba to help him at the war of Kurukshetra. Associated with beauty and chastity myth we also have the myth associated with motherhood. As women is expected to be good and caring mother who must bear children and love their children and give them all tender care and support needed. Obviously every mother will do so but what if a woman cannot bear male child? Or any child at all? As it is expected of a women to give birth to male children who will lead on their family name. Look at the physical and mental burden imposed on the mother. Luce Irigaray, talks at length at this topic in her essay, “The Bodily encounter with the mother” and here she raises a very relevant point of woman’s desire and her right’s. She also poses the question of her identity as a mother because as soon as the umbilical cord is cut the mother looses all her bonding with her child and it is in turn taken up by the father. As the child is given the name of the father, “. . . when a child is given a proper name, it already replaces the most irreducible mark of birth: the navel. . . . A proper name, even a forename, is slipped on to the body like a coating-an extra corporeal identity card. (Irigaray 436). Irigaray like other feminist critics demands for quality for women in terms of her feelings and desires which has been suppresses through ages. Quoting her;
We have to be careful about one other thing: we must not once more kill the mother who was sacrificed to the origins of our culture. We must give her new life, new life to that mother to our mother within us and between us. We must refuse to her desires be annihilated by the law of the father. We must give her the right to pleasure, to jouissance, to passion, restore her right to speech, and sometimes to cries and anger. (Irigaray 440)
It is only that in the later age some of the critics have tried to demystify this subjectified category of women. Like Gandhari of AndhaYug is ready to rebuke the God himself and when all justify Krishna and says his deeds are right for he is the God. Gandhari intervenes. Quoting from the text, when Vidur says, “Prabhu the Wo!” Gnadhari replies, “Kabhi nahi!” (Andha Yug 15) further in the text she rebukes Krishna and says that he could have avoided the war but he instead became the cause of destruction of humanity.
Tum yadi chahte to ruk sakta tha yudh yah
Maine prasava nhi kiya tha kankaal wah
Ingit par tumhare hi bheem ne adarma kiya
Kyu nhi tumne wah shaap dia Bheem ko
Jo tumne diya nirapraadh Ashwathama ko
Tumne kiya hai Prabhuta ka Durupyog . . . (Andha Yug 81)
But still it has a long way to go. As the performative nature of gender is being confused by the performances attached to women. Thus, is the need to change and free the category of women from the mythical meaning of women. The time is to find out and the world to realize the real meaning of women and free the category from the stereotyping. The greatest endeavor must come from the side of women who have to create the new more stable identity of their own. As Butler states:
. . .feminist-actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed-upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker start and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot. (Butler 1998: 288)
- Seeta: A famous mythological character depicted in Valmiki’s Ramayana, wife of King Ram of Ayodhya.
- Agnipariksha: Seeta was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka and when Seeta came back after the rescue. Rama asked her to give an Agnipariksha which was to undergo a fire purification in order to prove that she is chaste.
- Maryada Purushottam Rama: Rama, the husband of Seeta was called Maryada Purushottam as he was agreed to be the best of all men and full of virtue.
- Ahilya: A mythological character seduced by Indra and was hence given a curse to turn into stone by his husband.
- Indra: King of all Gods who resided in heaven.
- Shakuntala: Daughter of an apsara Urvashi.
- Dushyanta: A king who fell in love with Shakuntala but later forgot her.
- Draupadi: A mythological character from Ved Vyasa’s Mahabahrata who was the wife all the five brothers called Pandava.
- Pandava: were five brothers, son of king Pandu and his wife Kunti. They were together called Pandava.
- Kaurava: Hundred brothers together called Kaurava who were son of king Drithrashtra, the brother of Pandu.
- Apsara: Court-dancers in the court of Gods in the heaven. They were thought to have immense beauty and were supernatural characters that were immortal.
- Hidimba: wife of one of the brothers from the Pandava group. She was thought to be demonic in origin.
- Bheem: One of the brothers from Pandava group who was known for immense strength and warrior spirit.
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